Diederik Stapel, an extraordinarily productive and successful Dutch social psychologist, was known for being very thorough and conscientious in designing surveys, often with graduate students or colleagues. Oddly enough for a senior researcher, he administered the surveys himself, presumably to schools that he alone had access to. Another oddity was that Stapel would often learn of a colleague’s research interest and claim that he had already collected the data the colleague needed; Stapel supplied the data in return for being listed as a co-author.
Stapel was the author or co-author on hundreds of papers and received a Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology in 2009. He became dean of the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2010. Many of Stapel’s papers were provocative, but plausible. Some pushed the boundaries of plausibility. In one paper, he claimed that messy rooms make people racist. In another, he reported that eating meat—indeed, simply thinking about eating meat—makes people selfish. (No, I am not making this up!)
Some of Stapel’s graduate students were skeptical of how strongly the data supported his half-baked theories and frustrated by Stepel’s refusal to show them the actual survey data. They reported their suspicions to the chair of the psychology department, and Stapel soon confessed that many of his survey results were either manipulated or completely fabricated. He explained that, “I wanted too much too fast.”
Stapel was suspended and then fired by Tilburg University in 2011. In 2013, Stapel gave up his PhD and retracted more than 50 papers in which he had falsified data. He also agreed to do 120 hours of community service and forfeit benefits worth 18 months’ salary. In return, Dutch prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges against him for the misuse of public research funds, reasoning that the government grants had been used mainly to pay the salaries of graduate students who did nothing wrong. Meanwhile, the rest of us can feel a little less guilty about eating meat and having messy rooms.